Why Do Some People Die From Pneumonia?

Most people–young and old–who get pneumonia recover. Find out what makes a person more at risk for serious complications.

Although unpleasant, treatments usually improve pneumonia within a few weeks. Though, in severe cases, people can die from pneumonia. Pneumonia can be fatal for people in high-risk populations, such as infants and people with weak immune systems. Pneumonia can also be fatal due to complications such as sepsis or lung abscesses.

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What Is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a lung infection. Types of pneumonia include:

  • Bacterial pneumonia, or pneumococcal pneumonia: This type of pneumonia develops on its own or after having a cold or the flu.
  • Viral pneumonia: Viruses cause this type of pneumonia, which happens secondary to upper respiratory tract infections. Usually, viral pneumonia does not last longer than bacterial pneumonia.
  • Fungal pneumonia: Caused by fungi, this type primarily affects people with weak immune systems. People exposed to large doses of contaminated soil or bird droppings may also develop fungal pneumonia. 
  • Community-acquired pneumonia (CAP): This type happens beyond a hospital setting. 
  • Hospital-acquired pneumonia (HAP): This type occurs within 48 hours of hospitalization. 
  • Ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP): People may develop this type 48 hours after intubation. Intubation is when a healthcare provider inserts a tube through the nose or mouth. The tube enters the trachea to help a person breathe.

The alveoli, or air sacs in the lungs, can fill with fluid when a pathogen enters the lungs. That fluid causes inflammation, which produces pneumonia symptoms, such as cough, fever, and difficulty breathing.

Like colds or the flu, pneumonia often spreads through coughing, sneezing, or touching infected surfaces. Pneumonia can be a complication of other infections. For example, the flu is a common cause of pneumonia in adults.

How Does Severe Pneumonia Happen?

Pneumonia can become severe based on how the illness affects different body parts. For example, fluid-filled air sacs in the lungs can make it hard for oxygen to enter the blood. In that case, the rest of the body—including vital organs—can lose oxygen and not work correctly. A lack of oxygen can damage the kidney, liver, and heart.

Bacteremia can occur if pneumonia spreads to the blood from the lungs and infects other organs. Bacteremia can result in dangerously low blood pressure.

Inflammation in response to pneumonia can also result in sepsis, which is a severe condition that causes organ damage.

Together, those complications of pneumonia can be life-threatening. Pneumonia can be fatal if untreated or not adequately treated. Though, rarely do people die from pneumonia. Each year, around one million people in the United States are hospitalized due to pneumonia. About 50,000 of those people die from pneumonia.

Who Is At Risk for Severe Pneumonia?

A severe case of pneumonia could turn deadly in anyone. Though, a person's overall health can determine how well their body can deal with pneumonia. 

Pneumonia is more likely to be severe or even deadly in some people, like:

  • Infants, especially those born prematurely
  • Adults over the age of 65
  • People with chronic diseases that weaken the immune system
  • People who smoke 
  • People with substance or alcohol use disorders
  • People who have been exposed to environmental pollutants, toxic fumes, and some chemicals

The risks for infants and people with certain chronic diseases are higher than others because of their immune system functioning. Infants do not have fully developed immune systems. People with weak immune systems and older adults have immune systems that work less efficiently than typical.

How To Reduce the Risk of Pneumonia

There are several steps you can take to prevent the spread of pneumonia, such as:

  • Proper handwashing
  • Covering your mouth and nose with the crook of your elbow while sneezing or coughing
  • Limiting contact with others if you or others are sick

Avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke can keep pneumonia from worsening and reduce its risk. Maintaining healthy habits, like getting enough sleep and exercising, can help, too.

An annual flu vaccine can help prevent pneumonia since the flu virus can lead to pneumonia infection. The Food and Drug Administration has approved two vaccines that protect against bacterial pneumonia. Those include pneumococcal conjugate vaccines and the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine.

Talk to a healthcare provider if you're older than 65, have a chronic disease that weakens the immune system, or care for a young child. Pneumococcal vaccines can help protect people in those situations.

When To See a Healthcare Provider

See a healthcare provider right away if you have pneumonia symptoms. Seek emergency medical care if the following symptoms occur:

  • Bluish lips or fingertips
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion alongside respiratory symptoms
  • High fever
  • New shortness of breath
  • Severe wet cough or a worsening cough

A Quick Review

Pneumonia is an illness that can be fatal in some people. Infants, young children, older adults, and people with immune systems have a higher risk of severe pneumonia than others. Though, rarely is pneumonia fatal. You can prevent pneumonia by staying up-to-date on vaccines and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. 

Consult a healthcare provider right away to increase better recovery and help decrease the risk of death if you or a loved one has pneumonia symptoms.

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12 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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